The Anatomy of Light & Shadow



If you want to convey the volume or the three dimensional qualities of a subject on a two dimensional surface or from a drawing, you must create an illusion that is believable.

A basic understanding of how light and shadow work together or a bit of academic knowledge helps create this illusion. However, observation from life is one of the most important skills used in creating a realistic or representational drawing.

When LIGHT falls on the subject, we see the volume or three-dimensional (3D) qualities unique to the subject. A single light source will simplify the unique light and shadow regions whereas multiple light sources or ambient lighting conditions makes it more complex. If you are a beginner start with a single light source first for practice.

Always work from general to specific, group the light areas together and grouping dark areas together. When you 'block-in' these shapes you can always add more detail later on.
Simplify light and dark areas from observation by squinting your eyes. This allows a smaller amount of light to flow into your vision, reducing the amount of 'hue' or color that you see. It helps to see the gradation as one large shape or as a whole.

Light and Dark Shapes

Notice that when light hits a sphere within a single lighting condition, more than half of the shape is lit. This area is the LIGHT SHAPE. The rest of the object within shadow including the shadow created from the object on the ground is the SHADOW SHAPE. These two major shapes can be 'blocked-in' or mapped out and measured to capture or adjust the overall proportions of each area. Basic light and dark regions can be further broken down as you slowly BRING UP or darken specific area or tones.

 Tints, Tones & Shades  


A tone is a single color swatch. Alone by itself, it has a unique combination of color characteristics including hue, value, intensity and temperature.

Tone is also sometimes defined as any color that has been mixed with grey or a tone of grey. In drawing without 'hue' or color, grey tones are all you have to work with and are distinguished by shades.

Shading is created from a tone + black or a darkened pencil mark. A 'shade' is any tone mixed with black or in drawing the darkest marks on your paper. A 'tint' is any tone mixed with white or in drawing it is the white or your paper.

Various tones are created by the effects of light moving over the surface of an object. A gradation or the TONES of an object allows us to visually make sense of what we see.

Measuring Light and Dark Shapes

VALUE is the RELATIONSHIP of TONES. It is a measurement of the lightness or darkness of a particular shape. Subtle variations or increments in tone create a gradations because light area becomes grayer or shaded as the object’s surface turns away from the light. Depending on the quality of the light we can establish a relationship of these tones within a VALUE SCALE. The scale ranges from dark to light, all relate to each other with lighter tones at one end and the darker tones at the other.

Single Light Source Value Scale in Six Steps

You can make a VALUE SCALE using incremental tones to measure the lightness or darkness of shapes within your drawing. A complex VALUE SCALE may contain as many as nine to eleven distinct values. However, any scale can be simplified into three, five or even six tones. The secret to building complex TONAL RELATIONSHIPS is to build them slowly over time which allows you to CONTROL your values.

Light and Shadow

#1. The HIGHLIGHT is the lightest area of the sphere and is also known as “THE LIGHTEST LIGHT.”  The shinier the object, the brighter the highlight will be compared to the rest of your values scale.


#2.  The MID TONE or the AVERAGE TONE is the highlight and the halftone #3.  The tricky part is to render the average tone so that it accents the form of the object; this is the essence of the 3D shape of the object and is responsible for creating the basic form.



#1 - Highlight, #2 -Average Tone, #3 - Half Tone, 
  #4 - Core Shadow, #5 - Reflective Light, #6 - Cast Shadow  
#3.  The HALF TONE or “LOCAL COLOR” is the darkest value within the light shape.  This is where the light itself fades into the shadow shape of the object.  This is where the object “turns” away from the light.



#4.  The CORE SHADOW is the area where light cannot reach the surface of the object. This is the hardest part of the value system for new students to grasp.



#5.  REFLECTIVE LIGHT is created from the light that bounces off of the table or reflects from the surface upon which the object rests. It is always lighter than the core shadow but, darker than the entire light shape.  It usually complements the core shadow and rounds off the form of the object.  Note: Be careful to not make it too bright.  Think of it as the moon compared with the sun. The FORM SHADOW is created from the combination of the CORE SHADOW and the REFLECTED LIGHT. They complete the form of the object, so this is why they are referred to as the form shadow.



#6.  The CAST SHADOW is the shadow which is “cast” behind or falls underneath the object.  Cast Shadows have three major characteristics.  1) They are always darker than the form shadow.  2) All shadows have soft edges but, cast shadows have harder edges the form shadow.  3) Cast shadows are darker in the area that is closest to the object that is creating the shadow.

The cast shadow also has subtle changes in tone, but that will be covered in a later post.
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